This article was published in the Indian Journal of Public Administration. Ref: Pandey, Manoj. IJPA, vol. LIX, no.2 (April-June 2013)
SOCIAL MEDIA: ARE GOVERNMENTS USING ITS POTENTIAL FOR CITIZEN ENGAGEMENT AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?
by Manoj Pandey*
Summary: Media has traditionally been helpful in government communication, but has mostly remained one-directional. Social media, with its limitless possibilities of engagement with people, can transcend communication barriers and help governments bring in transparency in administration, reach people, elicit their participation and deliver services. Constraints such as poor literacy and low internet penetration in developing countries can be overcome, provided governments change their mindset from one-way communication to engaging citizens as valuable stake-holders.
In democratic systems of governance, media enjoys a very high status because of its role as a watchdog over the three pillars of democracy – the legislature, the judiciary and the executive.
The media also plays another important role, that of an intermediary between the government and the people. In this role, the media becomes the purveyor of information, facilitator, exposer, aggregator of people’s opinions and people’s advocate. It informs people of the government’s good work; it reports on achievements as well failings of the public delivery systems; it analyses social, economic and political issues; it generates and supports debate on government initiatives and policies; it provides feedback on public perception of an elected government’s performance; and so on. It also helps non-governmental actors in the society communicate with the people and the government. By doing so, the media acts as an active participant in the socio-economic development of the nation.
The media has been evolving over the years in terms of reach as well as engagement with people. As the governments felt a greater need to reach people and engage with them, the media was there in its expanding roles.
Till a century back, the focus of government communication was on publicity of its activities and achievements. It slowly turned more utilitarian, mostly in the developing countries - informing the targeted beneficiaries of welfare schemes about the facilities being created and how to use them.
The mass media – print media, radio and television - obviously was the primary vehicle for spreading information on developmental activities. Other tools of communication such as outdoor media (e.g. hoardings and banners), mass mailing of publicity material and reaching people directly (inter-personal communication) were used to supplement the mainstream media for reaching messages to the people. Simultaneously, new ideas emerged in the development communication scene, such as educating people about how to make use of the facilities created for them (i.e. IEC), advocacy, behaviour change communication, social marketing and engaging communities in development. However, these stayed localised and project-based.
Advent of ICT and social media
Internet and mobile technologies are fast transforming the concept of mass media. In this new regime of communication, even the biggest newspaper or the biggest television channel on the earth is but one entity; there are millions of ‘citizen journalists’, bloggers, podcasters and members of social networks, who disseminate their own as well as others’ information, views and entertainment content. This has brought about unforeseen levels of interactivity between the information giver and recipient; in most instances, one is both the giver and the recipient of information and opinion. A new form of media has taken birth and is growing exponentially – it is called the social media.
Social media refers to social communication tools riding on the latest web technologies (called web 2.0) and internet-enabled devices. Broadly speaking, these are websites or web-tools that provide a platform for fast exchange of information, mostly unfettered and free of cost.
Till a decade back, the worldwide web consisted of mainly static websites. Today the websites have provisions for on-demand creation of content, content in multiple formats, geo-tagging, interactivity and many dynamic features. Blogs, initially just web diaries, have surpassed traditional websites as the preferred form of online media due to high degree of interactivity and customisation. Then there are collaborative portals (e.g. Wikipedia, SlideShare), content-communities of photos (e.g. Fickr, Picasaweb, Instagram) and videos (e.g. YouTube, Ted), content aggregators and so on. These have a large extent of public-contributed content and are freely accessible. The new social networking sites – Facebook, Orkut, Google+, MySpace, etc – are even more interactive and instant, and have become the virtual living places for the new generation. People can give their quick opinion or ratings on others’ content and share it through social tagging / bookmarking sites (e.g. Digg, StumbleUpon and Pinterest). There also are virtual communities, professional talent pools, forums and online gaming sites. One can broadcast and receive information also by using tools such as RSS, podcast, chat, SMS and message board. The latest, and the most popular, entrant in this block is Twitter - a short message service (also called a micro-blog) that delivers tweets instantly on a range of ICT devices and allows the tweet to be re-broadcast.
Social media is similar to the traditional mass media in some respects. Both help in spreading information far and wide, and both need a free environment for their blooming and for their healthy contribution to public debate and feedback. But unlike the press in its traditional form, social media is less an intermediary in dissemination of information and more the direct giver and recipient. Unlike traditional media, social media is mostly boundary-less, un-controlled and dynamic. It is a community platform rather than a commercial product. It is individualistic rather than directed by editorial and marketing teams or a media baron. It is driven by professionals and committed people on one hand and amateurs and casuals on the other.
Rising influence of the social media
In social media, as mentioned above, everybody contributes to communication. Most participants give additional information or make comments, and even those who do not contribute content end up participating in the communication by referring and linking to others’ content. Therefore, controversies and disaster-related news instantly spread far and wide, and so do the deeds of good Samaritans.
The spread of content on social media is often instant and ‘viral’, i.e. it spreads exponentially as it is picked up by others and re-disseminated. Nearly 8 million Twitter conversations took place in a week starting October 9, 2011 on Occupy Wall Street issue alone. Tamil song Kolaveri di (November 2011) on YouTube received 20 million views within a month. Gangnam style Korean song, released in July 2012 received over a billion YouTube views before the year closed.
More than being a communication platform, social media leads to formation of communities of information sharers, online friends, followers, advisors-and-seekers, etc. The communication within such communities is much more potent than through traditional media, because of mutuality and trust.
Social networks are very popular in 16-34 year age group. This has great relevance to countries like India, which have a huge population of comparatively young people. The social and professional interaction and exposure that social media provides to this age-group is boundless. It helps the school or college goer to share notes and prepare for exams; it builds his network when he seeks employment; it gets him ideas to grow in his profession; it also lets him share his joys and sorrows with friends and relatives. A survey has revealed that for students with internet connectivity, Wikipedia has become the first source of information on academic subjects. The internet-driven student is likely to get alerts and advice from his teacher on his Facebook account more than in the classroom.
Various social media formats have already become the most important sources of information and entertainment in some western countries. Over 75% of US population is reported to be regularly using social media. With fast rising penetration of mobile phones and internet in rural areas and development of inexpensive devices like Aakash, social media will soon overtake the traditional media in developing countries too as the primary source of news, views and entertainment. In days to come, the mobile phone is likely to emerge as the primary tool with people for data storage; receiving news, messages and alerts; personal and business communication; data sharing; financial transactions; monitoring the delivery of services; identity proof; entertainment; and many other activities. It also means that the use of social media will grow fast among the hitherto excluded societies.
Surveys have revealed that in terms of engagement and trust, social sites are much above news sites. A young one with internet connectivity does not search for news; he assumes that all information worth being read, listened to or seen would automatically come to him through friends on his social networks. No wonder, the younger generation participates in, and is influenced by, the social media even at the cost of social and family interaction. With such a sway over people - especially the youth - social media also takes to a very high pedestal the traditional roles of media as a democracy watchdog and an intermediary between the government and the people.
The traditional media, initially apprehensive about social media’s influence, has not only learnt to live with it, it has developed a synergistic relationship with the social media. Most newspapers and channels now update their websites round the clock, dynamically update news, invite reader comments, and use social networking to spread their content far and wide. Some of them use public-contributed reports and audio-visual content online and also in their mainstream avatars. (For example, CNN runs an ‘iReport’ based on users’ contributions and Al Jazeera television has a community-based daily TV programme, called ‘The Stream’.) Some news sites now serve news filtered according to the user’s location and preferred language. Columnists often take their debate further by using social media. Most news anchors use social media actively to get new ideas and viewpoints for their programmes. As new tools are developed for pulling information from all over the web and aggregating it, news takes the shape of a process rather than a product. Some sites and blogs ‘curate’ news and features and entertaining content in the form of dynamic magazines that update almost real-time. Greater convergence between television and the net media has already given rise to interactive news and entertainment shows. These new formats of mass-media are synergising the professionalism of mainstream media with the virality and interactivity of social media towards informed discussions on different issues including those of governance and socio-economic development.
Potential of social media for citizen engagement
The nature of the traditional media as being primarily a one-way communicator becomes a big limitation in productive communication between agencies engaged in socio-economic development (both governmental and non-governmental) and the people. People can listen to them but cannot convey their feelings back. Reader’s letters, viewers’ or listener’s responses, opinion polls and surveys are some ways to get people’s response, but these are too insignificant, indirect and stand-alone to have an impact on governance or socio-economic development.
The mainstream media does influence policy and its implementation by airing its own opinion on various governance and developmental issues. But of late, it has turned excessively market-driven. It also tends to ignore matters relating to socio-economic development when it comes to reporting news. In addition, it rarely touches people’s lives except when they are part of some news-event. Social media, in contrast, puts a highly potent instrument of free exchange of opinions in the hands of citizens through which they can directly – without a gate-keeping intermediary – express their views to the world. When their opinions get pooled, they can challenge authority and demand good governance.
Social media’s constituents are people themselves, so they tend to participate in discussion on whatever interests them in material or emotional terms. Social media participants not only raise voice, they also join hands to contribute to welfare and governance. They get very active when they perceive injustice and oppression by the system against the common man. Naturally, in the recent past they have actively supported movements against major governance issues (e.g. anti-corruption movements in India in 2011-12), autocratic governments (e.g. Arab Spring of 2010-11) and inequitable systems (e.g. Occupy Wall Street movement in over 80 countries in 2011). The groundswell of voluntary participation that social media generates can be enormous: During Anna Hazare’s fast against corruption in New Delhi (August 2011), many thousand people gathered at India Gate to carry out a peace march, greatly helped by instant social media exchanges.
Despite the fact that a large segment of beneficiaries of welfare schemes in the developing countries are not able to use social media as of now, these platforms will soon be a medium of choice, especially driven by fast expansion of mobile phones and internet, which in turn will be helped by new technological developments and governmental initiatives (such as Aakash tablet and Common Service Centres in India). Even at the present low-level presence of social media in developing countries, its contribution to democracy and economic development is not insignificant. By promoting debates, getting expert views and out-of-box ideas, involving opinion leaders and getting feedback on implementation of government schemes, it helps in governance and reaching benefits to the targeted beneficiaries.
Low levels of literacy and poverty, of course, impose challenges in eliciting higher levels of engagement, even if the tools of social media become available to a large part of the population. What contribution can an uneducated and poor person make in policy formulation? Does the common man understand the issues to the extent that he can participate fruitfully in discussions and come out with practicable solutions?
These questions are valid. But even in highly educated societies, people’s understanding of serious governance matters may not be of high level and they may be indifferent to social and economic issues. However, everybody can contribute meaningfully – even if in little ways - if he is given the opportunity, an enabling tool and encouragement. It is not difficult to find ways to get useful participation. Social media can fight indifference in the middle class towards participation in nation-building activities. Social media can also channelize the time and energy of the elite in significant ways. People unwilling to physically contribute to voluntary action can associate productively with social media tools. Social media has been used extensively in recent elections in Iran, Egypt and the US.
All feedback is important, and the feedback from the most illiterate and poor people can have immense value in making welfare schemes and keeping them environment- and people- friendly. If the govt has the appreciation that no input is without value (even people showing anger is a very valuable input in a democracy, in many important ways), it can make use of inputs from a significant section of the society. It can also make special efforts to reach the marginalised people and those in remote corners of the country. The social media tools, perhaps used by local NGOs, can make a big impact in the way the government and public communicate. The feedback from mobiles and through people-assisted IT tools may be of a different type but can provide valuable inputs for policy formulation.
Experiences so far
Governments and their agencies in many countries have been using social media and other web tools for talking with and providing services to their citizens. For example, police has been allowing people to give information on crimes. Traffic police is using ICT tools for getting alerts from the public about traffic congestion, accidents and violation of rules. Many alert citizens help the authorities with not only information but also photographic proof of crime. Education Boards and public recruitment agencies have been listening to students’ and applicants’ grievances and providing online solutions. Tax authorities are allowing tax-payers to pay taxes online, track tax payments, file returns and receive refunds with the help of online tools. Municipalities are seeking citizens’ help in finding problems relating to garbage collection, leakage, water-logging, etc. GPS and geo-tagging are used for tracking vehicles.
When it comes to providing services and eliciting support in running public amenities by using ICT tools, the experience of governments, other public authorities and voluntary organisations has generally been satisfying. It has enthused these agencies to go a step further and use social media to involve citizens in their spheres of activity.
In a slightly more elevated form of citizen engagement, democratic governments are now sharing their drafts of important bills with people before introducing them in legislatures. Some governments go a step further by engaging people in discussion about those bills. Similarly, administrative actions with likely major effect on social harmony, morality etc are often placed on the web before the actions are really taken. Though many times it is only a token gesture, it does give the stakeholders a chance to see the government’s intent and voice their opinion.
Some governments have tried to involve individuals and communities further in policy formulation and governance by encouraging participation in ideation, discussions and actions. Some national and provincial governments that have been active in this field include those of Australia, the USA, the UK, the EU and OECD, Singapore, South Korea and Canada. Social media is used often in western countries for citizen-initiated and government-supported campaigns.
In India, the federal government has a National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) in place with the objective to ‘bring public services closer home to citizens’. Taking it forward towards engagement with the public, it has issued draft framework and guidelines for use of social media by government officials ‘in order to encourage and enable government agencies to make use of this dynamic medium of interaction’. Recently, it has also brought out a document titled ‘Framework of Citizen Engagement in e-Governance’ to crystallize its approach towards greater public participation using ICT tools.
These early experiments with social media show that if properly used, social media can be a good supplementary platform, especially for building trust between the government and the people, and eliciting public feedback. Social media tends to be synergistic with other forms of media, and therefore service providers use it with other online and offline tools. Proactive governments have used more than one social media platforms, considering that different platforms have their strengths and weaknesses.
Harnessing social media for socio-economic development: the way forward
The two foremost requirements for effective social media engagement are (i) the genuineness of intention and (ii) the faith in collective wisdom of ordinary people on even the most complicated matter. These are, in fact, requirements for good governance, and unless these are the core values of an organisation, tools of social media would only be mere show-pieces and fads. Worse, they would harm the organisation rather than helping it. If citizens do not see any purpose in engaging, they would turn indifferent; whey they see through the insincerity, they might even turn hostile.
Social media can deliver only if those using it have trust and confidence in social media and people. This applies to different levels of people involved with planning and implementation much more than officials concerned with technical aspects of social media. This applies to socio-economic development matters much more than delivery of utility services.
Another very important premise for social media, as discussed earlier, is a mindset of transparency and quick response. Bureaucratic procedures and hierarchy put a big hindrance to social media interaction. Interaction in the form of monologue or passive feedback or even trying to respond as per the department’s set FAQs is not likely to give meaningful results. If the organisation is not responsive to people’s views, it risks losing credibility. If the top functionaries do not give high priority to this interaction because of constraints of time or if they think it a waste of energy or consider it infra dig, it is better not to indulge in social media interaction rather than making a disaster of it.
Open interaction with citizens is like a double-edged sword – if it brings ideas and expert solutions, it invites criticism too. Therefore, social media interaction requires feeling responsible and accountable. It needs a culture of accepting one’s failings and a genuine effort to address them. People at the helm must be sincere in consulting people on the ground for their advice and must seriously look at what they say. They must have the confidence and humility to accept shortcomings and criticism – and the system must appreciate that.
Using social media as supplement to information dissemination tools is not the optimal use of this potent platform. A strong web presence, opening multiple accounts, providing government’s drafts or data on implementation of schemes online, and publicising the social media effort are also not adequate use of social media. There are many examples worldwide of a minister or senior official being on Facebook, a public functionary replying to questions on important subjects in a web chat or tweeting about his organisation’s initiatives, etc. But, unless these are part of an overall engagement with the stake holders, these acts only serve as personality news pegs and are likely to be seen by the discerning web community as hollow gestures. For being effective, social media must attain meaningful engagement with people.
In some cases, social media can be the main source of inputs and interaction; in others, it can be supplementary. It should not be overbearing or unsuitable to the people it addresses, since different demographic segments are not comfortable with all channels of communication. Even within the social media sphere, we need to have different options for people with different capabilities for engagement. Governments can engage more seriously with experts for solutions and out-of-the-box ideas, share the wisdom of those with hands-on experience, seek community perspective from local opinion leaders, and interact with the common man to know his problems and aspirations. Whatever the level of discourse, it has to be participative for it to be meaningful. Yet, only when a government or a public-sector organisation is sure of the robustness of its internal systems, and has the courage to expose itself to the people and take in criticism should it venture to let people ‘participate’ in an open way.
As a feedback tool, social media scores over other forms. Being voluntary and non-obtrusive, it can capture views that are authentic and un-filtered. The opinions can be captured in the form of data that can be analysed with psychometric and statistical tools.
Social media can be used innovatively to involve the public in positive activities in many ways, and the possibilities will rise further with development of new widgets, apps and add-ons. Many organisations have successfully used social media tools in unconventional ways. Australian Capital Territory has regularly been holding ‘virtual community cabinets’ using social media. In the last US elections, over a million people installed a Facebook application ‘US Politics’ to participate in debates. The World Food Programme even has a popular interactive video game ‘Food Force’ to sensitize the youth and children about food security and food aid.
As technology grows and people’s online habits change, social media of today will give way to more visually appealing, powerful and engaging media forms. The possibilities are limitless.
In final analysis...
Opening an account on a social media platform is easy for a government. Maintaining it as a beautiful showpiece is also not too difficult. What is hard to find is the commitment to provide service to the people, the courage to engage citizens and receive criticism, and the conviction to partner the common man in policy formulation and governance.
Social media is not the panacea for governance ills nor would heavy use of social media by governments and public service agencies necessarily result in highly participative system of governance. Social media is but a tool – a sharp tool that needs to be used sensibly because it has the potential to cut both ways. Its rising, and seemingly irresistible, influence over the masses does not leave the liberty with the governments and their agencies to ask whether they should use it. The question it raises is how best they should use it for their own advantage and for the welfare and development of the people.
---*: The views expressed are his own and have nothing to do with the organisation he is working in or the government.